Sunday, June 14, 2009

TNRLM Emmy Shortlist: Drama Series

Even though Battlestar Galactica was still one of the best shows on TV, and had many stellar episodes as it wound down, including “Blood on the Tracks” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” I’m considering this nomination more of a “lifetime achievement award” than a pure recognition of the final season’s overall quality, since the series finale was such a letdown. Don’t get me wrong, “Daybreak” was about 90% there, and a beautiful and thematically fitting capper to a thoughtful, challenging and unrelenting reinvention of TV sci-fi. But months later, there are still too many loopholes and copouts that nag at me to call it “perfect.” You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and Ron Moore ended the show the way he wanted to, and for that, we should appreciate his vision and save the quibbles and debate for blog posts and message boards, and thank the gods we were able to enjoy as many years of this masterpiece as we did. So say we all.

This season, Big Love finally found the right “calibration” to elevate it to the level of TV’s best dramas. It had the menace and laughable lunacy of the compound again, but only in smaller, more effective doses. We had Bill’s harebrained marital and business schemes, but they didn’t overwhelm the fundamental reason why Big Love is so damned good – the complicated and interdependent relationships between the three sister wives. Each had an involving and juicy throughline this season: Barb, who struggled with her faith and her church, in addition to having a health scare; Margene, who lost her mother and realized a growing sense of independence; and Nicki, who is always involved in something juicy (this year, it was plotting with and then against her father, carrying on a quasi affair and then discovering her ex husband and child had returned from exile). Yes, there were other twists and turns for the Henricksons this year, including expanding their gaming business to a casino, daughter Sarah getting pregnant and then miscarrying, Joey tragically losing his new wife and even a kidnapping by the demented Hollis Greene, but it was the trials and tribulations of the three wives, and their relationships with each other, that give this show its heart.

There’s no way you can describe In Treatment to someone who hasn’t seen it and make it sound sexy and compelling. “Well, it’s about a troubled shrink who sees four different patients and then goes for a session with his own therapist. Each episode is usually two people in a single room talking about their problems for 30 minutes.” WOW, right? No robots, no vampires, no smoke monsters and no superheroes. Then why is it so damned watchable? ACTING. With the exception of one session (whose primary problem didn’t really hook me, and featured the issues divided, to the detriment of the segment, among three family members vs. a single patient) every single performer on this season made my Emmy Shortlist. The quality of the acting (and the writing, and in a low key way, the directing) was consistently excellent, and it would be hard to find that level of sustained performing brilliance on 35 episodes elsewhere.

All the splashing around in the time space continuum in season five of Lost may have confused or alienated some viewers, but I loved it. Whether or not it was all “worth it” won’t be known until the end game is played out, but I can’t ever recall a show giving us a never ending stream of WTF moments like Lost: They’re in 1977! Sawyer and Juliet! There’s a nuclear bomb! Ben’s at the dock with Des and Penny! Locke hangs himself! No he doesn’t! Ben strangles him! Sayid shoots young Ben! We’re not going to Guam! Dan’s mom shoots him! There’s Jacob! There he is again! Let’s blow the nuke! White screen of WHAT?! The thing about Lost is, despite all the genre trappings and knock you off the couch moments, it’s still all about the characters, who are splendidly written and acted, and not even the last hour return of the accursed “quadrangle” can diminish the fun we had on and off the island this year.

How in the world did HBO pass on this show? Last year’s freshmen sensation showed zero signs of a sophomore slump, and continued to establish its credentials as one of the great TV shows of all time. Every moment, every script, every visual, every performance and every detail of the era are so perfectly realized, you feel like you’ve traveled back in time (without the aid of a magical island). On the surface, Mad Men didn’t have the crazy, twisting plot elements that many of the best shows of the past year did, but the smaller, more human complications faced by the characters inhabiting the Sterling Cooper universe were no less involving. When a tense dinner scene, a missing dog, a trip to the stables, or a poolside party can be just as riveting as a spectacular space battle for the future of the human race or the detonation of a nuclear bomb, you know you’re watching a work of art that’s no ordinary show.

At the end of the last season, Rescue Me had gone so far off the tracks I didn’t even know if I would keep it in my TiVo season pass list. But some time off, abetted by the WGA strike, obviously gave the powers that be time to recharge and refocus, because Rescue Me came galloping out of the gate and hasn’t let up since. Everything we love about the show has come back in spades: human frailty and strength, forged in the rubble of the twin towers. Barbed, witty and profane male bonding. Sharply drawn characters, given a life of their own by outstanding performances. Writing that can make you guffaw one second, and then turn on a dime into something dark, disturbing and reflective. Sexual games and farce that feels straight out of a Blake Edwards movie. And that’s not even mentioning Michael J. Fox’s award-worthy turn as a pill popping, wheelchaired force of nature who is dating Tommy Gavin’s ex-wife Janet. Rescue Me may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly proven it deserves a place on this list this year.

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